The Season of Censorship

It is said in prose both sacred and secular that to everything there is a season.  The season analogy always brings me right up to other important things about seasons – that there are many of them, and they follow each other, without fail. Sometimes they are enjoyed, and other times they are suffered through.

Apparently, it’s time once again to speak of censorship.  The latest event to make Internet news concerns the 2011 Teen Lit Fest, to be held in Humble, Texas, a small school district outside Houston.  Young Adult writer Ellen Hopkins, New York Times best-selling author of such popular books as CRANK and IMPULSE, was invited – and then “dis-invited” – to next year’s respected conference.  Ms. Hopkins saw this as basically a case of censorship, and asked for support from the writing and library community.

Some of this support has come from people writing and speaking about the incident.  Some of the support is physical – writers Melissa de la Cruz, Pete Hautman, Tara Lynn Childs and Matt de la Pena have withdrawn from the Fest in protest over Miss Hopkins’ treatment.  Some of this support has yet to be written about, and yet it may be in the wings.  There are dozens and dozens of teachers and librarians in the Humble district who want Ms. Hopkins to attend – indeed, who were disappointed when she could not attend Teen Lit Fest in 2009, and were happy to see her appear at several area high schools later on.  Based on those appearances, she was asked to attend Teen Lit Fest 2011.

Two articles on the topic:

Publisher’s Weekly

Now, there has been some discussion as to whether Ms. Hopkins was actually invited.  As in, had a contract been signed?  Ms. Hopkins points out that she has always felt a verbal contract was as binding as a written one – it’s how she was raised.  She was invited by email, offered an honorarium, and asked to reserve the date.  This was confirmed in a follow-up email, from a librarian in the Humble district.  One has to assume that no librarian in her or his right mind would embarrass self and district doing this if that librarian did not have authorization to do so.  After this email exchange, Ms. Hopkins turned down several other inquiries about that weekend.  As a writer who has dealt, in small ways, with convention committees, I will say that I would have felt myself promised to the 2011 Teen Lit Fest, and would have been expecting the contract in the mail.

Imagine the brouhaha if Ellen Hopkins got “a better offer” and then said:  “Well, we didn’t have a written contract….”  Like that would have passed unnoticed.  Uh-uh.  Ms. Hopkins had agreed to attend Teen Lit Fest 2011, and she would not pull out for anything short of catastrophe.  That’s how we do these things.

So – the bare bones of the affair seem to be, according to the School Library Journal:   “. . .  a middle school librarian, concerned about her students hearing Hopkins’ presentation, voiced her worries to parents, who went to Humble Independent School District Superintendent Guy Sconzo. He then told organizers to remove Hopkins from the event, according to an email Hopkins received from Susan Schilling, a festival organizer, who then apologized for having to uninvite Hopkins.”

Superintendent Sconzo, who no doubt was simply trying to avoid a tidal wave of controversy at the Fest, admits that he has not read any of Ms. Hopkins’ books.  They are challenging books, written in verse, and the topics that fill some parents’ hearts with terror include teenage prostitution, drug addiction and incest.  Hopkins’ books also talk about family, love, and friendship.  It should be mentioned that her books are so popular that librarians cannot keep them on the shelves.  Yes – teens are arm-wrestling each other to check out books of poetry.

I’d say Ellen Hopkins is doing something right.

It’s not like she doesn’t know that she is writing about some hard subjects – subjects that many parents in white bread America might prefer their children not know about.  But that’s ridiculous – how else will they find out about these topics?  How else do you want them to find out?  Because they will find out about them, one way or another.  Are you discussing these topics with them?  Do you discuss the news with them – explain why meth labs are blowing up within several miles of your home, or why there’s a college student making drugs in his basement down the street?  You think they don’t hear about this at school?

Over and over again, in the comments sections of these blogs, I read about kids learning empathy and compassion through reading.  These lessons were acquired through the struggles of protagonists — and the kids readily admit that they had no desire to experience those hardships themselves.  I have met more than one kid who was able to recover from such horrors because books told them that other people had survived those horrors…that there was life past such events.  That they could find friends and people who would love them, who would not blame them for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or trapped by poverty, or having made a bad decision.

But to keep moving here – this is where we are right now, with people jumping up and down and breathing fire about censorship in America.  Yes, I know that no one is talking about pulling Hopkins’s books out of libraries in Humble, TX – yet.  But every time this happens, it lays groundwork for the next incident.  I’d like to talk about why this happens.  And about a couple things we might be able to do to stop it from happening again.

I’ve come to the conclusion that censorship is born of three major factors – fear, laziness, and power struggles.  The first, fear, is born of both real and imagined incidents.  Parents and authority figures such as teachers, librarians, school board members, politicians – even religious figures – decide that for whatever reason, certain children – my children – are not ready to read this material.  It’s very easy for righteous indignation to carry a concerned parent from “My child is not old enough to read about this” to “No ninth grader should be reading a book about this.”  When a persuasive parent or politician states that “This book is dangerous to the mental health of our children,” the ball is rolling in earnest.

That ball smacks right up against laziness.  Why do I suggest laziness?  Let me put it this way – how many times have you heard someone being interviewed who said: “I haven’t read Harry Potter, but it contains magic and witches, and that’s against my (fill in the blank).”

I haven’t read…. But you are willing to trust the opinion of someone you may know only slightly, or not at all?  It’s all right for them to take this book out of the library, thus depriving not only you but every other parent in the school district of the free chance to evaluate it for yourself?  If you’d left the book in the library, you would know your child was reading that book and you could then discuss it with your child to make sure your child was not upset by the book, or confused by it.  But now you’ve left it up to chance – and possibly made the book even more attractive to your child.  Your child may hide that book from you, and read that book – with no input from you.

One thing my mother excelled at was keeping an eye on my reading without letting me know about it.  I didn’t find out until just a few years ago that when I ordered THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING from the paperback book club at school (from the advanced reading sidebar) she didn’t say a word – she just got her hands on a copy and read it before the paperback showed up.  So she knew what her nine year old wanted to read, and then let me read it.  She also was honest about her reading.  When I was in high school, she was reading a paperback written by someone with whom she had gone through high school.  I was wandering through the kitchen one day to find her ripping the paperback in half and tossing the pieces into the trash masher.  “I take it you’re not recommending it?” was the only thing I could think to say.  I mean, it was a book – you didn’t do things like that to books.  Mom was practically sputtering.  She couldn’t believe the man had written such tripe.  Then she said the immortal words: “You can read it if you want to, but it was a complete waste of time.”

Bingo.  With more books in existence than any one person could read in a lifetime, and I’d already started writing my first novel, why would I waste time on a bad book?  And she didn’t even say it to warn me off the book (which basically had a ton of foul language and sex scenes that she felt had nothing to do with the plot) but simply because she thought it was a bad book.

I was talking with a librarian once, in a small Texas community where I once lived.  She was telling me about a parent coming in and wanting to file a protest about a book on superstitions taken from the children’s collection.  The librarian tried to explain the book in the collection from the point of view of the librarians, although the patron seemed determined to take it to the school board.  After the woman left, another patron, who had been waiting to check out some books, smiled at the librarian and asked to be put down on the list as in favor of the book remaining in the collection.  She and her children had read it together and enjoyed it very much.

Everyone in Texas isn’t nuts.  But that woman stuck her neck out.  She was in the right place at the right time to say: “Hey, this was educational and fun.”  Did her decision cause her trouble at church?  I don’t know – I have a friend who thinks Wiccans are Satanists, and I cannot convince her that Wiccans don’t believe in Satan, that the Devil is a Christian thing.  People are funny with their fears – some are lazy, and won’t do their own research, while others will research only in certain places, if at all.  You will meet Muslims who believe only what the Koran tells them about Christianity, and Christians who believe nothing outside the Bible – their own version of the bible.

You’ll note I am talking about depriving people of the right to make up their own minds.  I completely understand a parent may wish to control when a child reads certain books.  I approve of a parent making intelligent choices about their children’s reading material.  I remember writer Carrie Richerson telling me about customers coming into the small bookstore she owned, and ordering Newbery award-winning and Honor books.  One woman ordered almost all of them for her child – but she did leave several off her list.  I asked Carrie if she had discussed the other books with the woman.  Carrie told me she had encouraged the woman to try many of the books, but Carrie was and is a realist.  She didn’t want to lose the customer, and she wanted those children to read as many good books as possible.

My first thought was, when will the kids figure out they are missing years X, Y and Z, and go looking for them?  But the parent was exposing her children to reading, and trying to choose what worked best for her family.  Bravo.  No laziness or power tripping here.  A little bit of fear, maybe, but the parent was not boycotting the bookstore, or threatening to stop coming there if certain books were not removed from the shelves.

There is also that problem of power – who will control what is read in a community?  Obviously, the people who care the most about what their children are reading will do the controlling.  Because of this, parents who wish their children to read anything they can comprehend must be vigilant.  People will be happy to make those decisions for you.  I remember that my mother had to speak to the librarians at the city library, when I was growing up – because I wanted to read the science fiction books in the adult section, and I had to have my parents’ permission to do so.  The librarians meant well, but I think my mother was surprised to find out that I was being censored.  I don’t think she made a big deal about it – she just got me an adult card.

Perhaps the worst thing about power and censorship is when it happens before the book even hits the shelves.  One writer told me a tale of how she was cut off at the knees before the book ever saw print:

“. . . I had an editor tell me my pagan king couldn’t marry a Muslim woman and my depiction of Muslims as rational and enlightened was, shall we say, commented on with exclamation points. I rewrote the novel: the king marries a pagan. I also was asked to back off on the depiction of my ‘villain’ who happened to be a bishop with less than Christian charity. I made it clear he was acting in contradiction of his professed beliefs and using his position as a tool to arrogate power, but that failed to mollify the publisher. It was my last novel for them.”

And what about the loss of choice for an intelligent teenager?  The Austin Public Library, my closest larger town library, has a tag line on its web site.  There’s a picture of a teenager holding a book, and the line reads: Worlds don’t seem so far apart with I’m at the Library –” Writer Irene Radford reports this sad tale of intolerance:

“I’ve had emails from 15 year olds thanking me for my books; they learned to love reading because of my dragons.

I had one email from a 17 year old girl who told me “My mom won’t let me read your books anymore because you aren’t a Christian.”  The phrase in  question was in one of the Merlin’s Descendants Series — full of sex and violence as well as magic — but (her mom) objected to only one phrase.  “No matter what name you give to God, she is listening.”

I hurt on many levels from this email.  I hurt as much for the intolerance as for this girl’s loss of exposure to the world at large.”

Such attitudes hurt the flexibility and strength of a young mind – limit it at the time when it should be reading everything, comparing and contrasting, deciding on how it will interface with the world beyond. It hurts writers, who generally try to teach about the world as they share stories woven from the threads of knowledge and imagination.

So – we have censorship.  What can we do about it?  We certainly can attack the problem one person at a time, as Carrie Richerson did with the patron in her bookstore.  Or we can decide that we will not limit access or information – even of things we don’t care for ourselves.

The World Science Fiction Convention in 1997 had to deal with censorship.  Writer Michael Moorcock was the Guest of Honor, but he almost pulled out of the convention at the last minute.  Someone pointed out to him that writer John Norman of the Gor series of books was attending.  The Gor books are generally considered to be averagely-written soft porn fantasy novels with a bent toward dominance of women.  Moorcock’s wife Linda works with battered women shelters, and rightly detests abusers.  Once this was brought up to Moorcock, he thought that perhaps he should pull out to protest Norman’s attendance.

The Programming Committee had a dilemma. They understood Moorcock’s point of view, but they also felt that the convention should not deprive Norman’s fans of the opportunity to see him. The convention refused to uninvite Norman. They did offer to make sure that Moorcock and Norman were not on any panels together, and they took care so that the men would not even meet in the hallway, if they did not care to. Linda Moorcock convinced her husband that it would be very bad manners to leave the convention hanging a week before the event – and the fracas became a non-event.

There was discussion. There was compromise. There was not censorship. And many panels did talk about those issues, although at this point I do not remember how much, if at all, either man participated in the conversation.

In a world where people seem to actually talk to people with opposing views less and less every day, I believe that discussion – conversation – is critical. We need to illuminate these topics, not yell at each other over them. If I am disappointed with anyone in this long and winding tale, it is the middle school librarian who first sought parents as allies in banning Ellen Hopkins from speaking at the Teen Lit Fest. Librarians have always been the people I turned to when I needed knowledge, when I wanted a new experience.

Why did this librarian not go to the committee and say: “We have some people who have trouble with Ms. Hopkins’ work – with exposing children to these topics at 11 or 12 years of age. I think we should schedule her first, and have a presentation that will be for parents, teachers, librarians and any other adults only. Ms. Hopkins can explain why she writes what she does, how she decides to shape her work, and read letters from children who write to her about why the work is important to them. This would be a chance for her to hear parent concerns and address them.”

Why didn’t this librarian try this tack first? At the farthest extreme of the scale, the convention could have decided that Ms. Hopkins’ talk for the kids would be a limited ticket event. There would be no extra charge, but parents would have to sign off on the child attending.

Is that ideal? Not at all – I’m sure that Ms. Hopkins would grumble about it, and I share her irritation. But these discussions, these panels would have the problem of censorship front and center in tiny Humble, Texas. It would allow Ellen Hopkins to come and speak in an area where many of the people want to hear her speak – and others might learn something important from her visit.

According to the web site Democratic Underground, other writers scheduled to appear at the festival include Sharon Flake, Brian Meehl, and Todd Strasser.  As of this writing, they have not responded, to withdraw or to propose options.  What I hope is that they propose options – including once again asking Ms. Hopkins to attend.  To have panels on “How much reality should children vicariously participate in?”  and “Censorship – When does parental choice infringe on the rights of other families?” and dozens of other possible panel topics.

If censorship is fear, laziness, and power tripping, then we need to inject some illumination into the mix. The first letters of just those four words give us F-L-P and T, and that means we are on our way to building words. And we can’t have a conversation without words.

UPDATE: According to this Guardian article, the festival in Humble, TX has been canceled.


About Katharine Eliska Kimbriel

Cat Kimbriel is working on a a contemporary fantasy about curses, ecological change, and very different ways of looking at the twilight worlds. She's still working on a short Nuala piece and mulling over a new Alfreda novel. You can find her fantasy & science fiction, including free samples, at her Book View Café bookshelf. These books can also be found at major online booksellers. Her personal blog is here, and you will find her on whatever social media currently interests her. Cat builds worlds that contain compassion and justice -- come join the journey.


The Season of Censorship — 9 Comments

  1. My response to that town would have been to withdraw, tell the world (or my fellow writers) why, and suggest that they boycott the event en masse. I would certainly never darken their door again, and I would urge everyone I knew to do the same.

    Please let me know when Fires of Nuala comes out as an ebook. I have all three books in ancient mass market paperbacks that are falling apart and would be overjoyed to have them on my reader.

  2. I understand that reaction, Pat — part of me would love to do the same. But Ellen Hopkins has already been to Humble once, a valued speaker at several schools. I think there is an opportunity here for education, and growth. Still, I would not blame Ellen for not wanting to be a part of this Festival — in fact, if she wanted to arrange to go speak against the convention at another venue, I would not blame her in the slightest.

    But we need to keep talking here. As far as I know, we still do not know exactly why the librarian brought up the “problem” in the first place. And as Irene Radford’s story above illustrates, the “problem” may not be what we think it is.

    These things can also be dealt with creatively. Did you hear about the mortgage company calling in the note on the property of those nutty people who want to burn Korans down in Florida? It appears these idiots suddenly have a lot of other important things to be thinking about…. ;^)

    I’m aiming for a September 30th release for the FIRES OF NUALA e-book, if nothing huge glitches between now and then. Glad you enjoyed them!

  3. I think this a compromise idea worth thinking over. Fascinating insights into reception of an author’s work, too.

    If the book with the king and the muslim woman and the bad bishop is NOT by Judith Tarr, please tell me who the author is (if she’s the author then I own it) – from your description it doesn’t seem to condemn any of the three religions mentioned and I’d love to read more in that vein.

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  5. Here’s where I think the disconnect is: “But I learn so much about other worlds through reading!” Exactly. There are plenty of people who don’t value the exposure to diversity, in the end, and who think they can keep knowledge from their kids (or that reading about it glamorizes or valorizes things in a way that parental discussion doesn’t). And reading is sneaky–it doesn’t happen in the family room with everyone to see. You have to do some anyway for school, and lord knows what goes on under the covers when it’s supposed to be lights out. If you don’t value knowledge and inquiry, why would you care about censorship?

  6. @Ann Marie —

    Sadly, I think you’ve put your finger on one of the big problems. There are people who think that if they can just control their children’s thinking until they hit 18, then they will be “safe” from all those weird ideas and cultures out there that are destroying our way of life.

    Ironically, it doesn’t matter **what** the religion — there are factions within any of the major faiths with the most adherents worldwide that think this way. All we can do is keep making it plain that they can believe this — they just can’t force a community to believe it.

    There are probably narrow-minded people out there controlling their children’s reading who are not a part of the children of Abraham (hysterical if their children read about spirituality?) but so much of it comes from odd ideas about God and personal purity. Like the mosque frenzy, it makes me sad and embarrassed for some of my fellow Americans.

    @Brenda — So much of what is in the news today would not be believed in fiction! ;^)

    @estara — no, not Judith Tarr. I don’t think she would mind my mentioning it, but she didn’t get back to me before I went to press. Let me find out if she wrote it under her own name — I’ll get back to you.

    — Kathi

  7. @Estara — the book that was censored before it was released was THE SPIRIT GATE by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff. It was a Baen Book. Maya says it can be found used, and is apparently still available new on the Baen site!